mental health

How to set boundaries or cut ties with toxic family, according to a psychologist

Steph Arnaldo
How to set boundaries or cut ties with toxic family, according to a psychologist

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For many, blood is not thicker than water. What do you do if your own family members are the reasons for your mental distress?

MANILA, Philippines – Now that the holiday season is over, it’s time to assess: are your family members and relatives just occasionally annoying, or are they toxic?

No family is perfect. Each family has its own set of ups, downs, and issues, but for the most part, everyone still loves and support each other all the same. However, not everyone is lucky enough to grow up in a healthy family. For many, the people closest to them have become the reasons for their anxiety, depression, and emotional anguish.

But how can this be possible, if these are the people that are supposed to be there for you? This may be very confusing and heavy to feel, but know that you are not alone, and that your feelings are valid. Note that there are fairly common issues that may be alleviated through boundary-setting, but there are toxic ones that may require a cutting of ties to protect your well-being.

Clinical psychologist Abegail Joyce (AJ) Requilman from Empath will help us distinguish one from the other and what to do about it after. Do we tolerate? Accept? Or change our situation completely?

Is your family toxic? Here are some signs

Are you currently in a toxic situation with family, or are you just now realizing that you were, in hindsight? Here are a few common signs that you may have grown up in a toxic household, according to AJ:

As a child:

  • You were asked to discipline/parent your younger siblings – and even your parents – most of the time. 
  • You were asked to listen to your parents rant about each other and hear about their adult problems, and even provide emotional support as if you were an adult.
  • You were expected to take on adult responsibilities such as taking care of complex household chores, providing financial support, etc. even before you are capable of doing so.
  • You were highly criticized for most of your actions, even for little mistakes or for not doing something “perfectly.”
  • You always felt like you were walking on eggshells around your parents, because of their unpredictable moods, temper, or reactions.
  • You couldn’t go to your parents with your problems, in fear of being blamed, ridiculed, or for it to be bypassed. “Well, what about my feelings?”

If one or more applied, you might be struggling with the following behaviors as an adult, as a result of this childhood trauma:

  • Feeling controlled most of the time. You cannot make your own decisions about your relationships, career, finances, etc. You feel that your decisions should always fulfill your family’s expectations so you can continue to receive love and support. You struggle with setting boundaries, saying no, or asking for what you want.
  • Feeling contempt instead of love and respect for your family because of the constant fights and disagreements. You also do not feel safe and loved when you are with them.
  • Healing from physical, verbal or emotional abuse that you have experienced in the past, or are still experiencing. You may struggle with low self-esteem, attachment issues, high-functioning anxiety as perfectionism, attention-seeking behaviors, or other mental health conditions.

You can also try asking yourself:

  1. Do I feel unable to make my own decisions about my money, career, and life in general, even as an adult?
  2. Do I always second guess myself and have a loud inner critic in your head who won’t shut up?
  3. Do I feel like I always have to give a part of myself to my family, even to my own detriment?
  4. Do I feel unable to be honest to my family about my own feelings and identity? Do I fear a negative reaction?
  5. Do I get anxious with the thought of being around them because:
    • They make me feel manipulated and guilty all the time.
    • My interactions with them make me feel inadequate or inferior.
    • They start fights or throw tantrums out of nowhere.
    • They take everything I say personally.
  6. I feel disrespected for my beliefs, sexuality/gender identity, partner, religion, etc.
  7. They usually put themselves over anything else, even at the cost of my needs.
  8. They have little or no respect for my boundaries or personal space.
  9. They always give me harsh criticisms either at home or in public.
  10. They try to control my decisions and make me feel extremely guilty when I don’t consider their preferences.
Setting distance or boundaries?

If you answered “yes” to most of the statements above, then it is highly likely you are in a toxic situation with family. If you’re tired of tolerating it and are ready to change it, you now have to decide if you’re willing to set boundaries or to completely cut ties with the member. But first, you need to do a lot of inner work.

“Take a deep dive with yourself and identify your needs and what you want to improve in your relationships first. It would be difficult for you to communicate what you want to happen and to actually do them if you don’t know what you need in the first place,” AJ said. For example, if you have been feeling controlled your whole life, you may be seeking independence as an adult. “You can express to your parents and older siblings to lessen their hovering on your personal affairs and trust that you can take care of yourself,” AJ added.

Recall if there are instances when you have tried to communicate this need to them in the past and what happened. Did they respect this boundary? How did they react to it? If you try to assert this need again, what would make them listen? If they won’t, you can figure out another method to fulfill your desire, or consider placing stricter boundaries (e.g. telling them that you will hang up the phone if they try to assert their decisions on you again).

AJ said consider just placing boundaries – and not cutting ties – when:

  • You have a lot of disagreements with your family but still feel that they support you in some other ways. There is always tension at home, probably because of differing opinions, but you are able to offer emotional support to each other in times of need.
  • You are not yet capable of moving out of your family home due to financial constraints or because you are still a minor. You may consider this if you are not in a life-threatening situation.
  • Your family member and/or you have been seeking professional help and while things are not yet ideal at this time, you are working towards improving your relationships with the help of a professional.

Some tips on setting boundaries include:

  • Be firm and calm when you communicate about the boundaries you are setting. When you say something while trembling, it is easier for them to know that you can still be convinced otherwise, or that you don’t really mean what you are saying.
  • If an explanation is demanded, you may do so once. Keep your responses short and neutral. You don’t need to over-explain yourself.
  • If your expressed boundaries are still not respected, continue on asserting them without needing to argue. For example, you may continue locking your door if you are working in your room and going down only to eat dinner with them. You may also continue to not engage in any conversation with them about topics that cause disagreements, and only engage when they are not emotionally charged. 
  • Keep reminding yourself that if you want to achieve better mental health, you’ll have to consistently stick to your plan of helping yourself out of the messy cycle of toxicity at home.

The process of boundary-setting is not easy, especially if you’ve only just begun. Self-guilt and self-doubt may arise (especially if you’re a recovering people-pleaser), but stay strong! AJ recommends to re-read your past journals and your boundary plans whenever you feel weak and want to give up.

“If you need some support, make sure to talk with a trusted friend or a therapist to help you get through this tough time. Remember that it is a long journey towards healing and you’ll have to be patient with yourself and your progress.”

The last straw

When all methods to maintain a civil relationship with your family member have been exhausted, cutting ties may seem like the best option for your well-being. You can consider doing so – like moving out and cutting all forms of contact with the member – when:

  • Staying in contact with your family threatens your life or makes you want to end your life. Please prioritize your safety.
  • You have exhausted all possible means of making them understand your side of the story and yet they continue to stick to their ways even when they can already see that their actions are affecting your mental health.
  • Being in the same room as them or seeing their name pop up on your screen are enough to trigger extreme emotional responses (eg., depression, panic attacks, anxiety, etc.) from you. 
  • Your relatives or other family members try to belittle what you’re going through and force you to make amends with a toxic family member because “nanay/tatay mo padin yan.” (He/she is still your father/mother).

“If you have tried so hard to patch things up with this family member but doing so has only caused you your own mental health and peace, sometimes the only way to heal is to cut ties with them even when you feel guilty for doing so. Don’t feel guilty for prioritizing your own needs,” AJ said, with a reminder that you have the right to lead a happy, peaceful life by distancing yourself from people who act abusive towards you. 

“You may also want to weigh what you will gain and what you will lose (pros and cons) when you stay in the relationship versus cutting ties. If there is nothing else that can be considered positive in the relationship, then it is futile to stay in contact while wrecking your psychological health in the process,” AJ added.

You should also consider cutting ties when you start to realize you are mimicking the negative behavior you experience at home to other people at work, school, or in your relationships. “It’s important to realize that abusive behavior is cyclical and if you have trauma due to these experiences in your family, chances are you will either re-enact the behavior or be drawn to abusive people outside your home,” AJ said. Breaking the cycle is extra difficult if you are still heavily attached to the source of your trauma.

Here are some tips for when cutting ties:

  • Acknowledge the toxicity in the relationship and do not try to minimize the damage or your triggers. Don’t gaslight yourself to thinking that you are at fault for the abuses that happened.
  • When you move out, change contact details, and consider blocking or deleting them from your social media as well. Leaving some strings attached, still, will not make it any easier for any of the parties.
  • Take your time to grieve from the loss of the relationship and other relationships that may have been affected by cutting ties with this family member/family. Now is the time for maximum self-care and self-soothing practices.
  • Try to accept that the family member will never change and that is okay. Focus on yourself now.
  • Get professional help so you can be guided as you grieve and heal during this difficult time.

If you cannot move out just yet for whatever reason (still financially dependent, minor, etc.), AJ also suggests a few tips in dealing with a toxic family member at home:

  • Try the “Grey Rock” method. When your toxic family member tries to start a fight or manipulate you into a reaction, try to give neutral responses and speak in a neutral tone as much as possible. Avoid making too much eye contact and give curt responses. Avoid any emotional engagement. This may lessen your toxic family member’s interest in engaging in arguments with you and getting the attention that manipulative people crave for.
  • At the dinner table or during interactions, try not to talk about topics that trigger an emotional response from either of you or the rest of the family. Try to change the subject to something neutral. Turn on the TV or music if needed. 
  • Maintain some physical boundary by locking your door when you are in your room. If you are working remotely or having online classes, consider staying at a cafe or somewhere else, more regularly. Having less physical interactions may help lessen the tension and provide you some space for clarity and attending to your own needs.

“Setting boundaries and cutting ties with family are never easy because they go against our natural inclination of putting our family above all, and sticking together no matter what. However, there are times when they are necessary in order to attain our own happiness and survival,” AJ said. – Rappler.com

AJ Requilman is a licensed psychologist who completed her Master of Arts in Psychology degree with
specialization in Clinical Psychology. She has years of experience in case management, assessment,
counseling and psychotherapy. Throughout her clinical practice, she has worked closely with children,
adolescents and adults with intellectual and emotional challenges, as well as clients with mood problems, anxiety, life-transition concerns and substance-abuse disorders. You can book a consultation with her via Empath’s website.

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.